The Long Goodbye

Ask any runner: Of all the races in track and field competition, the relay can be the toughest. Why? Because it requires not only speed but teamwork. No matter how successful the first leg of the race, a fumbled baton pass can scuttle the entire venture.

Such thoughts must be high in the mind of Al Gore, as he contemplates how tough the baton pass can be in a presidential race. And with a president like Bill Clinton doing the passing, Gore faces the challenge of trying to take the economy and run with it at the same time he attempts to let the legacy of scandal fall to the pavement.

Baton passing is, of course, the order of business in Clinton's address to the convention. And again, the Gore camp comes up against the complicated problem of the Clinton image in the voter's mind. America's fence sitters might hear the president's words of endorsement as coming from the Bill Clinton to whom they still give very high job approval ratings, or they might regard them as the product of the Bill Clinton whom the same surveys show they regard as a personal values vacuum.

Bill Clinton says that Al Gore "was always there" for the tough decisions - which might remind some voters of another time he insisted that he was not alone. It's similar to the problem faced by George Bush senior in 1988, when he and President Reagan tried to tell the country that Bush was an integral part of the administration's decision-making process, even as Bush denied his involvement in the Iran-Contra initiatives.

What makes matters worse for Gore is the very Clintonesque setting for this convention. Los Angeles is Clinton's town, movie stars his scene, and Gore must now take the baton against a backdrop of a couple of big fund-raisers for Bill and Hillary. With little breaking news at this convention - just as with the Republicans' earlier this month - events like these tend to get play, just as Clinton's soul-baring last week threatened to upstage the Gore-Lieberman show.

It's enough to drive a new presidential nominee to distraction, and word is that the Gore camp, if not Gore himself, is irritated with the president and his long ride into the sunset. And despite the blue skies and mellow vibes of California, and the reassurances of some Democratic strategists that there's plenty of money and spotlight to go around, Gore isn't likely to hit his stride until his president passes the baton and hits the road.